Why Won't My Grandchild Behave

Family Caregiving September 23, 2015 Print Friendly and PDF

Grandparents raising grandchildren can become frustrated when children misbehave. Parenting children who have experienced a trauma requires patience. Almost all grandparents raising grandchildren are doing so due to a family crisis or loss. Often the children have experienced abuse, neglect, or loss of a birth parent. Living through such events influences how children develop and handle their emotions. Children may feel totally out of control of their world and try to take control whenever they can.

Young children may go back to behaving like much younger children, such as wetting the bed, sucking their thumbs or carrying around a blanket. Some may have frequent temper tantrums. This is their way of coping with the chaos in their lives. As a grandparent, you may need to be patient and support them as they struggle with these changes.

Some children will exhibit behaviors you have not seen before. For example, a grandson who hoards food in his bedroom may be doing so because he does not know if there will be food the next day. A granddaughter who lies excessively may have learned that this is acceptable behavior. She may have learned that even small “normal” childhood lies resulted in severe or inconsistent discipline.

Other children will be disobedient about everything, straining the patience of the grandparent. These children are responding to life the only way they know how. They have had to learn ways to be safe when they lived in a situation that was not safe. Rather than punishing them for such behaviors, these children need added attention, rules for appropriate behavior and love.

What is a Grandparent to Do?

  • Watch to see if there is a pattern when your grandchild misbehaves. Does it occur when she is afraid? Does it happen after she has seen or talked to her birth parent? Does she become upset when there is a change? By looking at what is happening prior to the misbehavior, you will have a better idea of what the child is feeling.
  • Give your grandchild control where possible. Allow a child to make decisions in areas that are appropriate. For example, he could decide what clothes to wear, or how much and which foods served at dinner he will eat. The “clean plate club” is no longer recommended. For older children, discuss with them what rules would be appropriate; for example, establishing curfews. This will help your grandchildren learn a sense of responsibility.
  • Reflect on your own experiences to see if your reaction triggers misbehavior in your grandchild. Our own emotions around events that have occurred in the past influence how we respond in stressful situations. For example, does disobedience in a child remind you of how you were treated when you were young? Does this make it hard for you to respond objectively?
  • Develop a daily and weekly routine for your grandchildren and try to keep to it as much as possible. When routines need changing, let your grandchild know what will be changed and why. Children may have experienced inconsistent parenting; a routine will help give them a sense of security.
  • Reassure your grandchild that you have made arrangements for her care and that she will not be left on her own. A grandchild may be scared about not knowing what would happen if their grandparent becomes ill or dies. This could also be a cause for misbehaving.
  • Find ways to have fun and use humor in your parenting. We need to be able to laugh and enjoy life. Mistakes are a part of life and where appropriate, laughing at our own mistakes lets children know we are human.
  • Repair mistakes in parenting when needed. If you blow up and yell because you are frustrated with your grandchild, go back and talk it over when you are calm. Let him know that the blow-up was not the best way to handle the situation.

Parenting can be difficult in the best of circumstances. Parenting children who have experienced tough times in their lives is even harder. Learning why a child might be misbehaving is the first step in preventing unpleasant situations.


  • Sandra J. Bailey, Ph.D., CFLE, Montana State University


  • Ambert, A. (2001). The effect of children on parents. (2nd ed.). New York: The Hawthorn Press, Inc.
  • Golombok, S. (2000). Parenting: What really counts? New York: Taylor & Francis, Inc.
  • Greene, R. W. (2005). The explosive child. New York: HarperCollins Publishers.
  • Keck, G. C. & Kupecky, R. M. (2002). Parenting the hurt child: Helping adoptive families heal and grow. Colorado Springs, CO: Pinon Press.
  • Siegel, D. J. & Hartzell, M. (2003). Parenting from the inside out: How a deeper self-understanding can help you raise children who thrive. New York: Penguin Group, Inc.
  • Steinberg, L. (2004). The 10 basic principles of good parenting. New York: Simon & Schuster.

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This work is supported by the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture, New Technologies for Ag Extension project.